Last week, a police officer came into Joe’s Addiction and announced that they (the police) are not required to do this, but that they were giving us a “courtesy call.” The officer informed us that any people who are seen hanging around outside Joe’s Addiction would be arrested for loitering. (People go outside to smoke, to sit at tables and drink coffee, to socialize with each other.) The “courtesy call” was so that we could let our customers know.
I was outraged! This new “rule” was intended to specifically target the homeless, the felons, and the “crazy people” that the city officials have asked that I not allow to hang out at our coffee shop.
My emotions raged. All through this ordeal with the City of Valley Brook http://www.news9.com/story/22649873/valley-city-council , we have attempted to respond as Jesus would respond. We have been kind, we have continued to serve and to minister. We have meditated upon the Way that Jesus endured persecution and death without retaliation, and have tried to follow his example. This has been a very difficult, but wonderful season for our Community of Jesus Followers at Joe’s.
However, something shifted in me this last week. The night before this officer came into Joe’s, I had seen the movie, The Butler. I wept in the theater as I witnessed the sacrifices made by so many in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, sacrifices that ultimately were about confronting injustice—through nonviolent means. I was overwhelmed with admiration for these heroes of not so long ago, and I began to wonder when is it right to just humbly take the persecution, and when is it right to take a stand and confront a wrong?
My anger is so often a result of my own feelings being hurt, or because I am not getting my own way, or even because I feel my own rights are being violated. Overcoming this kind of anger is a process of learning what Love looks like—learning to release selfishness, to respond in kindness, in gentleness, in laying down my rights.
Yet, it seems there is a place for “righteous indignation,” and perhaps that place is when injustice impacts the “least of these.” All over the nation, cities are trying to figure out what to do with their homeless populations, and some of them, rather than helping to alleviate the causes of homelessness are simply shipping them out of view http://money.msn.com/now/post–columbia-sc-to-exile-its-homeless, or enforcing laws to limit the sight of them http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-hugh-hollowell/feeding-homeless-raleigh-police_b_3817641.html, or in some cases arresting them for loitering!
I need to tell you about my friend Zach. Zach is homeless. He is a convicted felon. Zach has been given a number of mental health diagnoses. He’s been told he’s bipolar, schizophrenic, clinically depressed. In my estimation, Zach has the mental and emotional age of maybe a five year old, but Zach is a grown man in mid-life.
Zach lives outside, and he doesn’t bathe. His “home” is a pile of maggot-infested garbage. He smells really bad. Sometimes it’s just the smell of a long-unbathed body, but sometimes he reeks of urine. I often offer a kleenex to Zach, because he walks around unaware that he has white snot running out of his nose into his scruffy mustache.
Recently, Zach has lost his friend—his boyfriend actually—the one person in Zach’s life that he truly believed cared for him. Zach’s experience of loss and rejection are too much for him to bear, and every time I’ve seen him for the last two weeks Zach has been crying (this does not help with the level of snot production, by the way).
I understand. I truly understand. Zach is difficult to love. To the eyes of those who do not know him, I am sure he appears scary. He’s big. He’s strange. And frankly, fear is not unwarranted. Sometimes Zach’s emotions get the best of him and his temper rages. He clenches his teeth and his fists and paces, huffing and puffing obscenities. Zach carries a knife on him—for practical uses living outside, but also for protection. It is not hard to imagine Zach hurting someone or even hurting himself.
Zach needs help—more help than we can give him at Joe’s. We give him groceries. We give him clothes. We make sure he has eaten. We listen to him cry. We pat him on the back. We encourage him to go the mental healthcare facility in the city. He has gone. He says the drugs they give him don’t work. A couple of times, we’ve even taken him to a Crisis Center. I don’t know what they’ve done for him there, but within a day or two he shows up again at Joe’s in the same condition.
Some days I cry. Some days I get mad. Zach is one of so many we know who fall through the cracks. There is no place for him. “Funding has been cut” . . . “It’s not the government’s job; it’s the Church’s job.” (If I hear that one more time, I might scream! What would your church do for Zach?)
I visited Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta this last winter, and I was reminded of the criticism she endured for not providing more medical intervention for the dying. Her ministry was to offer shelter, to offer food, to offer comfort—to hold the hand of the dying. Limited resources limit what we can do. How incredibly frustrating it must have been to not be able to “DO” something!
These are people, precious people with precious stories, and Zach is only one of thousands.
I decided I could not passively endure anymore. It is time to resist—nonviolently, of course.
I met with the Chief of Police. It was difficult for me. I hate confrontation. I am afraid of getting hurt. I had done my research, and I discussed with him the law. I reminded him that it is his job to enforce the laws of the city, not just to do whatever he pleases, or even what a City Council member tells him to do. I asked if he knew the loitering laws of the city. He did not. (Those moments of the conversation were extremely tense, as I asked him how he can enforce the law, if he does not know what the law says.) We looked at the law together, and it is absolutely clear that “loitering” does not include customers of my shop sitting or standing outside, smoking or drinking or even just chatting with one another.
The conversation improved as we talked about the issues that the city is facing with the growing number of homeless that have landed on their doorstep. Neither of us had the answer, but he finally expressed to me that he is not “against” us, that he understands that we are helping people. He committed to me that his police force would be informed to back down from this threat, and that they would stick to simply enforcing the law. We shook hands and promised to work together, if at all possible.
Since this meeting, a police car has been parked directly across the street from our coffee shop for hours at a time, just watching our people—intimidating. I have instructed our folks at Joe’s to simply wave and smile at the police officer, as they drink their coffee at the tables on the veranda (the front sidewalk ).
Many of you know the story of my fear of spiders. It nearly kept me from obeying God’s call on my life twenty-five years ago. I remember in the early days of my marriage to John, one evening I had taken out my contacts. I was preparing for bed and relaxing in a hot bath, when I noticed two little black things floating in my bath water. I bolted out of the bathtub, streaking through the house, screaming for John to come and kill some spiders! . . . Only they weren’t spiders . . . they were black, sock fuzzies. They must have been on my toes when I got into the water. John has never let me forget.
Last week, I was taking another hot bath (I am trying to recover from this back injury and learning to take better care of myself). I noticed a small spider floating in my bath water—right there in the water with me! I had my contacts in, and I could clearly see its wiggling legs. Without thinking, I reached over and pinched it between my finger and thumb . . . and then burst out laughing.
This is what God has done. He has changed me. He has healed me. He has given me courage. Honestly, I still quake inside in the face of so many things. I do not relish confrontation. I especially do not like getting my feelings hurt. But sometimes courage rises in us when we’re facing great injustice.
Something must be done. I do not have the answer to the needs of the homeless of the world or of our nation. I do not have the answer to the needs of the homeless in our little Community of Hope at Joe’s Addiction. But until we figure out what to do for them, I will continue to offer some food, some shelter and someone to hold their hand.
(Tonight is the Council meeting in which they will decide the fate of our business license.)
*Zach’s name has been changed to protect his identity.